It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the township of Childers in the Bundaberg Region. We were mindful of the time that was escaping us, and with four hours of driving still ahead to reach Yeppoon, we had little time to spare. We spent our short time at the Palace Backpacker’s Memorial.
Childers has become infamous for the event that took place here in June 2000. The town made international headlines when an arsonist set fire to the Palace Backpackers Hostel, claiming the lives of 15 tourists. Once best known as a major stop for backpackers working the fruit-picking trail, the name of this locality has become eclipsed by tragedy. The Palace Backpackers Hostel fire is usually the first thing that pops into the minds of most Australians when they hear the name of this town, but this place is much more than the tragedy that took place here. Before I tell you about our visit to the memorial, let me tell you about Childers.
With a population of approximately 1,584, the Childers area was traditionally inhabited by the Dundaburra group who are part of Kabi Kabi tribes of the Wide Bay Burnett in the northernmost area. Their descendants still live in the area.
The township is set on a ridge overlooking fields of rich volcanic soil.
Europeans first arrived in the area in the 1850s. Pastoralists established properties soon after to raise cattle on the fertile lands. Back then, sugar was (as it is now) the key crop grown in the Isis. The town was established in 1885. The Isis railway line to Childers opened in 1887 and was pivotal in the early development of the area. Childers Post Office opened on 14 November 1887. The town is reportedly named after High Childers, British statesman, who was the Auditor-General of Victoria in the 1850s.
The railway line closed in 1964.
The Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel fire on 23 June 2000 killed nine women and six men. The former Palace Hotel had been converted into a backpacker hostel, and was popular amongst backpackers who were working as fruit-pickers in the area. Robert Paul Long was arrested for lighting the fire and charged with murder (two counts) and arson (one count). He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Queensland artist Sam Di Mauro made a 7.7 metre (25 foot) long glass memorial wall that was set into the new building. Sydney artist Josonia Palaitis was selected to paint portraits of the victims, from the photos of them provided by their families. Photographs are not permitted of the portraits, so you’ll have to visit for yourself. In the meantime, take my word for it that it is a truly heartwarming experience to view this moving tribute.
The Palace Building reopened in 2002, and alongwith the memorial, includes a Regional Art Gallery and an Information Centre.
A backpackers hostel still operates behind the original Palace site. A courtyard stands between the old and the new, featuring sections of the original wall and building structure that survived the fire. Quaint timber potting beds and shady trees fill the space with greenery. Tinsel and old chandeliers hang from the branches overhead , giving the space a very eclectic feel. It is a quiet and peaceful space, in between the old and the new, ideal to reflect and remember.
Next stop, Gin Gin.